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Beggars of Bangladesh
Marie-Louise Olson

People are dying all around me. What am I doing about it? And you? Is it possible that we can honestly consider ourselves as good people, but at the same time be completely oblivious and immune to the suffering around us?

When I first arrived to Bangladesh – about 3 weeks ago – I was as crisply fresh as a newly cut onion off the plane from Europe. I will not deny, that I have lived in many third-world countries whilst growing up, but even so, I had not expected the immense sorrow I felt, when I experienced the poverty of the almost 145 million people in Bangladesh.

It was my first day in Dhaka; I was sitting in the back of the car with my mother, both of us staring out the windows as though we were newborn children, gazing at life for the first time. As fate had it, we stopped at the dreaded traffic lights at Gulshan 1 circle – you know, where the Navana Tower is – and a shadow came towards our car...

The woman who approached the car was such a horrific sight, that my stomach sank to my toes. Her broken teeth were black and the wretched clothes she wore were not even covering her breasts. I quickly bent over and busily started looking for my sunken stomach somewhere on the floor, trying to avoid what was coming next, but all I could hear was: "tap tap"…on the window. Then a scary-sounding groan leapt from her throat. What more could she do? She didn’t even have enough energy to go down on her knees and beg me to help her.

If it were me, that suddenly lost everything I had and was helpless like her, I would be so desperate to survive, that my instinct would be to break through the window of the car, pull out the greedy pig from inside and scream in his face, "can’t you see that I will die tonight if you don’t help me! You have so much, and I have nothing. Will it really hurt you if you just give me a little bit? Please…?"

Well, how probable is that situation anyway, huh? Knock on wood, of course… But have any of you, who have experienced the same as me every single day that we stop at a traffic light, ever thought about what you would do if you were the one, begging for 5 Taka outside some big shot’s car window? How frustrating must it not be to stand outside in the torrential rain, with cars whizzing by on all sides, and breathing desperately on a car window while seeing the people inside laughing, writing text messages on their flashy mobile phones and completely ignoring you?

It is as though we have developed a mechanism in our brains that automatically switches our humane senses off when we approach a red traffic light. We almost hate these beggars who approach our windows, tapping continuously until either the light ‘saves us’ and turns green, or our annoyance takes over our humanity and we actually shoo the irritating beggar away. Perhaps we have even caught ourselves thinking: "Go away, you dirty person, why do you have to intrude on my space and my conscience like this? I know I have enough for you, I just don’t feel like opening my wallet to see if I have any small change. Go beg money from someone else. Just go away!"

Perhaps our reactions come from a Darwinist instinct derived from the animal kingdom – survival of the fittest. In other words, if you are weaker than me, then perhaps you deserve to die. But, is that not the entire reason why we have the right to call ourselves human, and not animal; the fact that we have thoughts and feelings, and that we are not so primitive that we don’t only act out of instinct, but also rational thinking. But we don’t always help these people, do we? Even though we are all probably very kind and generous people, why is it that we just look away and pretend we don’t hear the desperate knocking on our windows?

I realise that there are many discussions regarding what the best thing to do is. Many say that it is not good to encourage these people to beg; they are taking the easy way out, instead of working through sweat and tears like the rest of their fellow countrymen. It is a known discussion that some of the beggars – in particular the children – are a part of a profitable business, and that they even have their own working shifts. Some say that the women carrying the dead-looking babies around, as tools to gather sympathy, are not even their real mothers.

But then there are the old people, the lepers and the crippled. Do they also beg just to make good money? Do they have any other choice when they can’t see or walk? I have both my legs, and I can see. I can see. You can see too, because you are reading this. I am aware, that I cannot change the whole world and save everyone. If I really wanted to, I should do something on a bigger scale, like opening a shelter or a free hospital for these poverty stricken people. But I don’t have the time, or the money. That’s everyone’s excuse, right?

On that first day in Dhaka, the encounter with that woman outside my window was heart wrenching for me, and I actually cried. Is that bad or embarrassing? Perhaps, but, I was so saddened by the sight of someone dying in front of my eyes. The thought that I had enough power to bring happiness – even if only for one day – to that person’s life, was mind blowing. That day I wanted to give her everything I had. I did give her some money – a mere 10 Taka. The gratitude in her eyes was a thank you that was beyond any look I had ever seen, and that is a feeling that will haunt me forever.
© Marie-Louise Olson October 2005

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